The Supreme Court agreed Monday to consider arguments over the death penalty for the Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, after a lower court overturned the sentence. Prosecutors had appealed the lower court ruling.
Tsarnaev was convicted of joining his older brother in planting two pressure-cooker bombs in 2013 that killed three people and seriously injured more than 250 others.
A three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year ordered a new sentencing hearing, ruling unanimously that the trial judge had failed to allow enough questioning of potential jurors about how extensively they followed news media reports of the bombings. The defense in a high-profile case must be allowed to ask extensive questions about the kind and degree of their exposure to media coverage, the court said.
“Make no mistake: Dzhokhar will spend his remaining days locked up in prison, with the only matter remaining being whether he will die by execution,” the ruling said, using his first name to avoid confusion in the ruling with his older brother, Tamerlan, who died in a shootout with police four days after the bombing.
Justice Department lawyers urged the Supreme Court to reverse that ruling and let the death sentence stand, calling the case “one of the most important terrorism prosecutions in our nation’s history.”
Past Supreme Court rulings don’t require asking prospective jurors about the specific content of the news reports they’ve seen or heard, the government said. Instead, the test is whether jurors can set aside their impressions or opinions and base their verdicts on the evidence presented.
In its ruling, the appeals court also said the judge at Tsarnaev’s trial improperly blocked evidence about a 2011 Boston-area murder, in which three men were bound, beaten and killed. The FBI interviewed a man who said he was there when Tsarnaev’s older brother carried out the murders.
The trial judge ruled that the testimony was unproven and that the killings were too far removed from the bombings. But the appeals court said the defense was deprived of evidence that showed the older brother was violent and domineering.
In response, the government said any minimal value the evidence may have had was outweighed by the danger of confusing the jury.
“Tamerlan’s alleged commission of independent crimes almost two years before the bombing had no reasonable prospect of altering the jury’s recommendation” that Tsarnaev receive the death penalty for his own acts of terrorism,” government lawyers said.
During the trial, Tsarnaev’s lawyers did not deny his role in the marathon bombing. But they said he was easily manipulated by his brother, a man they called the mastermind.
The Justice Department told the Supreme Court that an order to hold a new sentencing hearing would further traumatize the Boston community. “The victims will have to once again take the stand to describe the horrors” that Tsarnaev inflicted on them, it said.
Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent who covers the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, based in Washington.